Buddhist teachings keep me guessing. Depending on the teacher and the topic, I am reassured or doubtful, suspicious or yielding, intrigued or cross-eyed. Often things just make sense, ring true to me, familiar, like the life I’ve been living for decades. Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing something. Do I only think I understand, have been observing these same things in my life and in the world around me all these years? I’m not sure what makes me doubt myself, but doubt arises. And I’m not sure what inclines me to always calibrate. Is this something I already know? Do I only think I know it? Maybe it’s an old fear, not being enough. Maybe it’s only hubris. Or maybe it’s tied to the way I bristle over sentences that begin with, “Those of us who’ve been practicing for years—” The speaker means a formal sitting practice. But what if we’ve been practicing “off the cushion” all this time? I love sitting practice. I suspect it accelerates things. And it feels like a luxury, all that stillness, all that not doing. Of late I tend to divide my time between the “long breathing in, long breathing out” I’ve been learning and my metta practice. Since I decided to offer the writers retreat this summer in Joshua Tree, I have to bring myself back more than usual, my mind and heart busy dreaming up ideas. I’ve begun sitting with my eyes open more and more. I think I may be giving myself more permission to do what feels right to me, become less concerned with following the rules. But there’s still a part of me who wants to “do it right,” a part of me who wants to know if I’m delusional about the things I think I know. The other day people were talking about feeling one with the mountain. That seems easy and natural to me. But on the surface, I don’t buy the “no self” spiel. Because there is a me. There is my portion of spirit housed in this body. Unique in place and time. Never again will the two be joined, this same form and spirit. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling one with the mountain or the moon or the desert rat dying in my courtyard on a summer afternoon. Or with the ant I stepped on yesterday because I must have hurt him when I was sweeping the courtyard. I put my sandal down on him, my chest aching, to end his tortured movements. I may not buy the “no self” deal, but I do know we’re all one, the mountain and the moon and the rat and the ant—and me.
I’m doing sitting practice on a Thursday morning in March. All the windows are open. I can hear the low hum of the swamp cooler in the back room, feel puffs of air against my skin. When I open my eyes the bougainvillea in the courtyard catches my heart. I close them again, take a long breath in, a long breath out. I feel a familiar tightness in my belly, like it might be messing with my breath. I stay with the feeling, sink deeper. All at once I know this part of me has been afraid for 59 years. The knowing floors me. I’m heartbroken for her. Her dedication humbles me, decades of being afraid on my behalf, wanting to keep me safe. I talk to her. I tell her how sorry I am she’s been afraid all these years and I didn’t know. I invite her to let go. I’ll be afraid again, I say, but you no longer need to hold it all the time. I am bowled over by her sheer strength, to have held this fear all my life. I cry, cradle my belly with my palms, my forearms, both sad and grateful for her sacrifice. I’ve known my fat was a way to protect myself, but this deepens my sense of this. Was my body trying to cocoon this ball of ancient fear, buffer her, maybe, so her efforts might be just a little easier? It’s okay now, I tell her. We’re safe here, I say. We’re safe here doing sitting practice beside the open sliding glass door, the house finch chattering in the courtyard. (Well, safe barring maybe an earthquake, I think.) I tell her she can come on duty now only as needed. You don’t need to do this all the time, I say. I don’t know if she can unfurl just like that, but I vow to remind her again and again. I am still made dumb by what she’s done, this gallantry, the immensity of this feat. It’s okay, I tell her again. It’s okay to rest now in between, I say. Rest, the way the deer’s body relaxes when the danger’s passed, the way she returns to ease, nibbles more grass. Rest, the way the white-crowned sparrows drop down one by one from the bougainvillea after I walk by, going back to eating seeds from the ground, talking music. Rest, I tell her. Sleep, even, if you can. I’ll be right here.
Three weeks ago the mockingbirds began to sing. When I’m lucky I hear one singing nearby in the middle of the night. I’m hoping he comes closer. Last Wednesday when I walked out of my class at the Annenberg Center the air smelled like heaven. I stopped, eyes closed, taking in deep breaths of it. The scent was so familiar, but I couldn’t recognize it. I opened my eyes to the lemon blossoms in the tree above me. Every year I forget how strong the fragrance is, how it finds you everywhere, even when you can’t spot a tree. The sun’s been moving north at a steady pace, all stealth until now when you see it’s almost halfway through its journey. It sinks behind the mountains as I write, facing me straight on now. I’m sitting inside with the swamp cooler on and the sliding glass door wide open to the courtyard. My neighbor’s tree, the one who hosted goldfinches like ornaments all winter, has budded into leaf. I think: don’t tell me we don’t have seasons here. I think: don’t let it bend you out of shape, Riba, annoyed now at all those imaginary people who like to claim we don’t. I’m doing my sitting practice facing the mountains, and my mind is crazy busy. Yesterday, too. I wonder what’s going on. I’ve been looking into rooms, wanting to begin to teach a writing class, give a workshop, lead a writing circle. I’m even fantasizing about offering a retreat, too, maybe in Joshua Tree. This is where my mind zooms today again and again while I’m supposed to be meditating. Could we get a cluster of their studio cabins all together? Could people bring their own food, plan for a pot luck or two? Can I keep it affordable? Do I charge a fee for my efforts or let people offer dana? Do I teach craft or just guide us in entering in? I am gone so long during the meditation that when I wake up and come back I feel the urge to be angry at myself. My laugh surprises me instead. But I do wonder what’s going on, wonder if I should be worried. I sit for the last minutes with my eyes open, taking in the laden bougainvillea branches arching across the wooden fence and the mountains behind them. I hear a mourning dove calling from the roof of my trailer, the first call of the year. I cherish the longing and the full, rich sweetness of his voice. Maybe, I think, I don’t need to worry about my busy mind. Maybe I’m just ready to spring forth with the season. Maybe now I get to burst into bloom.
“Mother#%!#%!” I say. Or maybe I only think it, my angry fingers jabbing at the screen of my mini iPad in my lap. But the word surprises me, slipping out over such a small annoyance, ugly in my mouth. I’m on the bus heading to a class in mindfulness, of all things. I was making my morning rounds for work, and on one login page, an ad that was slow to load kicked me out of the keyboard, twice. Each time my still-typing fingers triggered the ad and sent me to another page, watching my wireless icon spinning, waiting to get back to the login page to try again. It’s the eighth day of my juice cleanse, so maybe I can blame my obscenity, the disproportionate response, on that, on some edginess from expelling toxins, maybe, more quick to jump to annoyance. Over the years, I’ve tamed my tendency to swear, especially in company. But at home the words still tend to tumble out when I get mad. When this one slips out, it feels so automatic it makes me wonder if I’m doing this all the time without noticing. And then I get all excited. I read an article in the L.A. Times a couple of weeks ago about how Lent had moved into the secular world, how people were posting on Facebook about what they planned to give up this year for those 40 days, everything from Dr. Pepper to texting to wine to social media. One woman planned to give up being self-righteous about her political views. Another is giving up gossiping. I’ve always been intrigued by Lent, too, and by Fat Tuesday that precedes it. (As a matter of fact, I started my cleanse on February 22nd, but I remember thinking if I failed, I’d have Fat Tuesday as a fall-back for my last hurrah of hamburgers and Häagen-Dazs. And Stella.) So when I read the article, I wanted to join in. But I’m already working on so many fronts, I didn’t know what to choose. Still, I tucked it in the back of my mind. And now on the bus it comes to me. I can give up obscenities! For a moment I wonder if I’m too late, and then I realize today is the first day of Lent. The timing is perfect. I sit there grinning like I won the Lotto. And in that lovely way the universe has, two days ago a colleague used an expression I was quite taken with and decided to steal. I get a chance to try it out later in the day. First, on the phone I already forget my new vow and say the s-word. But then when I hang up, still upset, I remember. “Holy cats!” I say. And when that isn’t quite enough, charming though I find it, I fumble for another word, more with my mouth than my mind. “Butterfingers,” I say. It is all I can come up with. And then I can’t help it. I have to laugh. And all of a sudden this sacrifice looks like it may have buried treasures. Maybe it will make me nice.
My mother’s going to walk Auntie Gardi out to her car. It’s late, late afternoon when the air begins to chill. She’s standing on the walkway waiting for Auntie Gardi and I to say goodbye. She’s wearing her brown fuzzy coat. It’s the coat that speaks to me without my knowing. It tells me she’s better now, this clear evidence of her taking care of herself. And so when she comes back inside the house I rant at her, that kind of angry outpouring that comes to some of us after danger has passed, when we are no longer holding fear at bay, after we know our loved one is going to be okay. I’m rinsing out the kitchen sink, and even before I’m done venting I am overcome by self hatred. I feel like I can’t contain it. I don’t know what to do, so I go for a walk. I can’t breathe for the welling up of venom against me. I walk downhill. “May I hold this feeling with kindness,” I say. I can’t imagine being able to, but I ask anyway, over and over. When I get to Ocean View, I sit on the curb and cry. Then there is enough room to breathe again even though the self hatred is still pushing up against the inside of my skin, red angry waves of it. I climb back up the hill, look over my shoulder. And there through the branches of the pine trees below me are Venus and the waxing crescent moon. Something softens inside me when I see them together in the late dusk sky. Another voice wonders: how do I deserve these greetings again and again, these tender signposts? Later, I think: I can’t remember the last time I felt that volume of hatred toward myself. Am I going backward? And then I realize what was different here. Yes, I was overcome. I didn’t know how to hold it. It was so big. But it was only feeling. It didn’t have a voice, no words. I wasn’t telling myself what a horrible person I was for yelling at my mother. I felt like I didn’t know how to hold the feeling, but I wasn’t aiming it at myself. I wasn’t attacking. I wasn’t being mean to me. So, no. Not going backward after all. This was something new.
Did you think you’d be only a footnote for me when you were gone? It makes me sad all these years later, even though you didn’t choose me, even when the details of your face, your head, your ears begin to dim. But maybe we both believed the other could only love us a fraction of how much we loved them. Heartbreaking at first thought, neither of us believing we were worthy of that much love. But maybe instead what it points to is the enormity of the love we felt. If it was so huge, so surprising, even unfathomable how much I loved you or how much you loved me, then maybe it makes sense. Because even a fraction of that love would be immense. And ours was never a typical relationship, at any rate. We were never a couple. We didn’t celebrate our romance. We weren’t the kind to name an asteroid after ourselves or write I love you across the sky. But if I could go back now and name an asteroid for you, I’d do it. I’d want you to know you could never be a footnote. I didn’t think for one second you were a saint, though I know you thought I didn’t really see you with all your human flaws and ugliness. (Later, I think you knew I did, knew I saw you and still loved you.) But I would gladly name an asteroid for you, so you’d know where you fell on the wheel of my life. I’d spend hours poring over the sky chart to choose the best one, maybe somewhere in the top left corner. I’d make this grand-ish gesture so you’d know I never felt anything close to what I felt with you, drifting at the edge of sleep, warm skin to warm skin, the place it took me, that deep peace. So you would know I still think about you in odd moments, like Sunday mornings when I linger over the newspaper and wonder what it would be like to do that with you, to decide together what our next move would be. Pancakes or a nap? I’d gladly name an asteroid for you so you could know you are not a footnote. You are a bonfire.
[Editor’s note: This was written per the Day 4 prompt in the Two Sylvia’s Press advent calendar. “Write a poem in which you name an asteroid for someone you know. Use several or all of the following words: chart, fraction, saint, skin, bonfire, wheel, breakfast, dim, footnote.”]
The third assignment I write for the MOOC doesn’t sing, but I feel better about it than the two that came before. The requirements are specific, a scene with three female characters with a fourth who comes along to “thwart their desires.” It’s the first time in this class I’ve had “real” characters come, and the fourth woman who arrives doesn’t behave at all as I’d imagined. It’s been a while since I’ve had characters acting on their own, and I love that part of writing fiction. My scene with these four women happens on a train, and the next assignment needs to take place after a catastrophe of some sort (either internal or external), so the train lends itself to that. I lie in bed this morning dreaming up bits and pieces of how I might continue with these women on the train. I see the two-story house in Oakland, watch Rachel working in the garden, hands in the dirt. And it comes to me that dreaming up fiction might be just as compelling as worrying about money or family, might take me away from being present with the same obsessive flair. But what a way to not be present. Dreaming up fiction beats focusing on my fears, no contest. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thrilled to have fiction floating through me like this. It makes me giddy and grateful: for this free class, for my lighter work load, for the cooler mornings that let me lie in bed getting to know these women in my head instead of having to be out early sweeping the patio, feeding the birds, before the brutal heat descends. The southern sun sends blocks of yellow light across the wall of my room. I love winter mornings in this trailer home, look forward to a long string of them with childlike glee. All in a rush I feel the longing for all the years I might have been churning out fiction. I glimpse how it could feel to be old and know I have characters in my head who I might never get down on paper. I tally up the years. Could I have 30 years still ahead of me to write? More? I want them, every one of them. So I will need to make good use of them. I will need to savor every character, relish every story like a good, rich stew. And bring as many of them as I can onto the page before I die.